The first wine I ever bought to drink was a liter bottle of something called Hirondelle. This was then a big-selling brand that made me think consciously for the first time that I quite liked the fruit of the vine in a bottle. The first wine that actually turned my head and opened a door in my mind was a Château Mouton Rothschild 1971. I remember the color, concentration and first whiff until today. I suppose this is what helped to seduce me into a career in wine.
To the question “What was the first wine you ever drank?” I guarantee that almost every British-born Jewish boy would give the same answer. The first wine would invariably be Palwin. My first sip, along with everyone else’s, was probably at my brit mila (circumcision). Thankfully, I don’t remember it because it was a long time ago and the wine-soaked gauze I was given to suck on was enough to dull the memory.
My first memory of wine was at our large family Passover Seders. I remember that the table was strewn with bottles of Palwin, with their slightly gaudy, old-fashioned labels. As a child, I used to think it was quite nice, even a forbidden treat. It was warm, sweet and slightly wicked.
For Shabbat or festivals, Palwin was there on the table as a fixture alongside the candlesticks and the halla. To me, they did not appear as consumer products that had been purchased but rather were part of the religious ritual itself.
Palwin has flourished in three centuries, the 19th, 20th and 21st, and has become part of the history and fabric of Jewish communal life in the United Kingdom. It was most likely the wine that one’s English grandparents drank or the dusty bottle that was always in an aunt’s liquor cabinet. There is no British Jew who is not familiar with Palwin wines.
The story began in 1898, when a wine import and marketing company was opened in London by the Rishon Lezion & Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars. Their British subsidiary initially traded as The Palestine Wine & Trading Co. Then the word “Palestine” was the term used for local enterprises. There were some other notable examples. The Anglo-Palestine Bank was founded and later renamed Bank Leumi, and the quality newspaper for English speakers The Palestine Post was later renamed The Jerusalem Post.
The Palestine Wine Company started marketing wines with the name Palwin, which was an abbreviation for “Palestine wine.” Palwin was the first brand sold in export markets by the Israeli wine industry and is arguably the oldest wine brand still in existence in the kosher wine world.
Of course, there are many other famous kosher wine brands, each with its own history and associations. The most well-established of these are from America. Mogen David was launched in 1933; the all-conquering Manischewitz was first released in 1934; and Kedem dates back to 1948. Of the leading Israeli brands, Yashan Noshan, in its current format, dates from 1957, Conditon from the 1970s, and King David from 1987. All of them are infants compared to Palwin.
During the time that Palwin was the brand name of the UK subsidiary, every wine it produced, whether dry or sweet, was branded “Palwin” and, intriguingly, each bottle was identified by a number. This was not just for sweet wines but also for dry wines, aperitifs, brandies and liqueurs. For instance, there was a dry red wine called Superior Claret, which was Palwin No. 2; a dry white wine was called Palwin No. 3; and there was a brandy known as Palwin No. 5.
There is all sorts of conjecture as to the reason for the numbers. An original guess that gained popularity over the years was that they related to the bus numbers that used to pass Whitechapel in London’s East End. I think it is far more likely that each product was differentiated from another by a series of numbers because new immigrants had trouble reading English, but there was no problem identifying numbers. The first thing a new immigrant learns in his new language is how to count.
Palwin wines were launched in the 19th century and were prominent in every Jewish home throughout the 20th century. Old advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle used to cry out “Let your Seder table help the Jewish colonists by insisting upon Palwin!”
Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the company name was changed from Palestine Wine to the Carmel Wine Co., and the name Palwin became specifically associated with a brand of kiddush wine rather than the full portfolio. The number of Palwin wines was whittled down to four. These were numbered 10, 11, 4 and 4a. The difference between them was basically the alcohol content. The No. 10 was 12.5 percent alcohol, and the No. 11 was 13%. The No. 4 was 14%, and the 4a was a liqueur wine weighing in at a hefty 15.5%.
Up until the early 1970s, these wines were shipped from Israel in large barrels and were bottled under the Palwin label in London. Since then, they have been bottled at Rishon Lezion Cellars.
Even at the beginning of the 21st century, Palwin still features prominently, despite all the new quality options the wine lover has to choose from. Today, the only survivor is Palwin Menorah No. 10, to give its full name, but it is known simply as No. 10. The customer going into a shop and asking for “A bottle of No. 10, please” will receive what he wants.
Palwin is in itself a symbol of the dreaded kiddush wine, sometimes disparagingly and misleadingly termed “Jewish wine,” that has given kosher wine such a bad name. Palwin, though, does have some notable attributes that make it stand out in the kiddush wine sector. Palwin No. 10 is made 100% from freshly gathered wine grapes and has no added water or sugar. This is rare for kiddush wines in general.
The grape varieties used are mainly Carignan but also a little Petite Sirah and Argaman, grown in the coastal regions of Israel. The wines are made by a mistelle – adding natural grape juice for sweetness rather than using artificial sweeteners. The resulting wines are less sweet and more wine-like than many of the other kiddush wines on the market.
Many people’s perception of Palwin has often been ruined by tasting from an already opened bottle that has sat on the sideboard for half a year or more. At its freshest, it represents a better kiddush wine than most.
Though the word “Palwin” promotes cynicism among the wine intelligentsia, British Jews protect it with fervor. Any change in label, taste or a temporary scarcity on the shelves provokes a rush of letters to the winery from people indignant that their Palwin has been touched.
I personally belong to the new wine school that prefers to use quality, dry table wines for both enjoyment and ritual use. However, when my first grandson was born in England, I nipped out to the supermarket to buy a bottle of Palwin for his brit mila ceremony. It just seemed the right thing to do.
For those who want to maintain traditions, Palwin wine remains a reminder of a bygone era. Like an old friend who has accompanied you through thick and thin, it remains unchanged and available as you remember. A time capsule or a taste of history – in a bottle.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org